The Montreal bagel needs no introduction here. Visitors and locals alike know that ordering a dozen from either of the city’s famous St-Viateur or Fairmount bagel shops is the nicest thing you could do for yourself and 11 friends (especially if freshly schlepped back to the province whence you came).
Now, New York is having a Montreal-style bagel moment. Black Seed Bagels, open since late April, has quickly reached that most rarefied stratosphere of Manhattan foodstuffs: the one where the locals must – and do, happily – line up around the block to get a taste of the hottest thing since the Cronut. The draw: A hybrid bagel that combines the best qualities of both the New York and Montreal styles.
Co-owner Noah Bernamoff (who opened the shop with Matt Kliegman) is a Montreal native and originally won the hearts and stomachs of New Yorkers when he opened Mile End, a Jewish delicatessen inspired by those in his hometown. For years, he even had friends make weekly overnight runs across the border to procure fresh Montreal bagels for the restaurant.
Now that he’s making his own, The Globe and Mail caught up with Bernamoff over e-mail, after yet another busy day tending to the wood-fired ovens.
Describe your bagel for a Canadian.
It’s basically a New York bagel dough, which means the combination of unbleached, unbromated high-gluten flour, water, malt, salt, sugar, vegetable oil and yeast with the addition of honey and pre-ferment (ie. old dough). That is then shaped and cooked in the Montreal style, which means shaped laboriously by hand, poached in a honey-water-filled kettle, heavily seeded on all sides and baked at a high temperature in a wood-burning oven.
If your bagel is best described as a New York-Montreal hybrid, would that make your bagel the perfect bagel?
I think everyone has their own impression of what constitutes the perfect bagel, and it has much to do with where one was raised and ate from a young age. I think our bagels are delicious and I really love them and to me, they’re on their way to being perfect. But I’m just a humble Canadian living in a foreign land.
Have you had Canadians come into the shop? What’s their reaction?
Of course! They seem to really love the bagels even though they are not, and are not designed to be, Montreal bagel replicas. I think there’s an element of pride when people celebrate a bit of Canadian culture (Montreal culture, really…), and it’s fun for us to be a taste of home away from home for many Canadians.
You’ve talked a lot about the bad bodega bagel in New York. What do you think is the state of bagels in Canada?
The truth is, I haven’t eaten very many bagels outside of Montreal, but I would say the state of bagels in Montreal is alive and well. I do think the Tim Hortons “bagel” is a baked-good travesty and should be legislated off truck-stop menus nationwide.
You’ve also talked about expanding Black Seed Bagels throughout New York. How do you think a shop would do up here? Are Canadians craving a bagel revival too?
I think we’re doing things a little differently at Black Seed than most bagel shops in Montreal – in particular, our keen eye for good bagel-sandwich combos and high-quality sandwich ingredients. But I don’t know that Montrealers would be as excited by our shtick as New Yorkers or other Canadian and American cities. Montrealers are a tough and often stubborn, unchanging group of food lovers.
Now that you’re years into running Mile End and you’re making your own bagels, what Montreal staples do you miss eating that you still can’t get or make yourself?
Sometimes I just really crave Portuguese chicken – both styles: the Romados butterflied and char-grilled style and the Coco Rico rotisserie with chicken-drippings potatoes. It’s really unique to Montreal and I really miss it.
What would it take to do a 24-hour operation, à la St-Viateur or Fairmount?
We’re ready to go 24 hours and that’s always been our intention. We just need a couple more bakers to fill out the schedule and we’ll be ready to rock all day and night.
Why are you partial to St-Viateur, versus Fairmount, after all those years of trucking in St-Viateur bagels?
The reality is that St-Viateur was a willing partner in our cross-border bagel-shipping bonanza and so we gave them our business during that time. I think both St-Viateur and Fairmount are amazing institutions and deserve maximum respect regardless of individual preference and allegiance. I love Montreal bagels and would be content with either and happiest with both!
This interview has been condensed and edited.
Black Seed Bagels: 170 Elizabeth St., New York; open daily 7 a.m. to 4 p.m.; blackseedbagels.com.